In May of 1969, as the women’s movement was gaining momentum, a group of women in Boston met during a “female liberation conference” at Emmanuel College. In a workshop on “Women and Their Bodies,” they shared their experiences with doctors and their frustration at how little they knew about how their bodies worked.
The discussions were so provocative and fulfilling that they formed the Doctor’s Group, the forerunner to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, to find out more about their bodies, their lives, their sexuality and relationships, and to talk with each other about what they learned.
They decided to put their knowledge into an accessible format that could be shared and would serve as a model for women to learn about themselves, communicate their findings with doctors, and challenge the medical establishment to change and improve the care that women receive.
In 1970, they worked with the New England Free Press to publish a 193-page course book on stapled newsprint titled “Women and Their Bodies.” The book was revolutionary for its frank talk about sexuality and abortion, which was then illegal. The cost: 75 cents.
In 1971, they changed the title to “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to emphasize women taking full ownership of their bodies. The book quickly became an underground success, selling 225,000 copies, mainly by word-of-mouth. The cost this time around: 30 cents.
In 1972, after strenuous debate, the group of founding authors decided to publish with a mainstream publisher in order to reach a wider audience. They formally incorporated as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and negotiated a contract with Simon & Schuster that included a 70 percent clinic discount for low-income women and provision for a U.S. Spanish translation.
The book has sold millions of copies and received numerous honors. Library Journal named the 2011 edition one of the best consumer health books of the year. Also in 2011, Time magazine recognized “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as one of the best 100 nonfiction books (in English) since the founding of Time in 1923. In 2012, the Library of Congress included the original “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in the exhibit Books That Shaped America, a collection of 88 nonfiction and fiction titles “intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives.”
As far back as 1974, publishers and women’s groups in other countries started translating and adapting “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and developing books inspired by it. In 2001, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, now known as Our Bodies Ourselves, or OBOS, formalized the Our Bodies Ourselves Global Initiative, which provided support to and worked closely with women’s groups adapting the book for their own cultures and communities. In 2011, Our Bodies Ourselves celebrated its 40th anniversary with an international symposium that included a dozen of OBOS’s global partners. As of January 2022, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has been reproduced in 34 languages, reaching millions of people around the world.
For many years, book and web content contributors, along with advisory board members, board members, consultants, founders and staff, collaborated to produce and promote evidence-based information on girls’ and women’s health and sexuality. This information, distributed through OBOS’s publications, website, and blog, also addressed the social, economic and political conditions that affect health care access and quality of care. This contextual information has inspired readers to learn more about — and work to change — the attitudes, policies and laws that affect their own and their family’s well-being.
In April 2018, the board, founders and staff of Our Bodies Ourselves came to the difficult conclusion that OBOS no longer had the resources to continue paying staff to develop health information and collaborate on translations and adaptations with our global partners. Over the spring and summer of 2018, OBOS transitioned to a volunteer-led 501(c)3 and scaled back our core work to two primary activities: advocating for women’s health and social justice and providing limited technical support to OBOS’s global partners. Read more about the transition.
That same year, Our Bodies Ourselves began a partnership with Suffok University’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights. The Center is developing Our Bodies Ourselves Today, a new platform that will feature updated, curated, and inclusive information about the health and sexuality of women and gender-expansive people. The site will launch in 2022.
Since its inception, OBOS has had a tremendous impact on the lives, health, and human rights of women across the world. Learn more.